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How Cade McNamara became the best quarterback in Northern Nevada history

Cade McNamara
Cade McNamara was one of 11 quarterbacks to compete at the Elite 11. (Provided by the McNamara family)

When Cade McNamara was in sixth grade, he remembers his father asking him a simple question.

“What do you want to be serious about?” his dad, Gary, asked him.

McNamara was an excellent athlete, splitting time between football (where he was a pummeling running back and powerful defensive end) and baseball (where he unleashed fireball fastballs and was a great defensive player). With Gary being a former all-conference outfielder at Fresno State who was a Wolf Pack baseball assistant coach for six seasons, a future on the diamond appeared the likely outcome.

But, Cade, just a sixth-grader at the time, had a different idea. Football would be where he made his name, and he would do so at quarterback, a position he had not played until that point in his life.

“There’s something different about football,” said McNamara, who will lead Damonte Ranch against Bishop Manogue for the Northern 4A Regional championship Friday night. “I just loved football.”

McNamara was not content with just playing football. His dream was more grandiose. In elementary school, he envisioned playing at a “big-time college” in front of 100,000-plus fans in primetime television slots. In the eighth grade, he decided he would graduate high school a semester early so he could join whichever college he picked in the spring of his senior season. And early in his prep career, McNamara spent Sundays emailing dozens of colleges with his highlight reel and an explanation for why he'd fit their school.

Was this all a little far-fetched? Of course. Only four quarterbacks from Northern Nevada since 1970 had ever signed scholarships to play Division I football: Jeff Dankworth (Reno/UCLA), Bart Hendricks (Hug/Boise State), Jeff Rowe (McQueen/Nevada) and Hunter Fralick (Spanish Springs/Nevada). And here was a kid who hadn’t even reached middle school dreaming he’d be even better then them.

“Growing up, you know this isn’t the most heavily recruited area,” McNamara admitted.

But he persisted, his belief in himself, his parents’ unselfishness to take him to showcases in California and the mentoring he received from his high school coach, Shawn Dupris, and quarterback coach, Jordan Palmer, paving the way for McNamara to become the most highly recruited quarterback in Reno history. And with McNamara soon to hold the state records in passing yards and passing touchdowns as well as a scholarship to Michigan in hand, every dream McNamara had has come true. Even he is surprised by that.

“Extraordinaire,” McNamara said of basically being able to pick whichever college he wanted to attend (his final three were Michigan, Alabama and USC). “It’s something I wasn’t expecting. I knew if I worked hard enough I could have success, but I didn’t think I’d have this many options.”

All that success – becoming a four-year starter; leading his team to a Regional title in an epic comeback his sophomore season; being a four-star recruit; earning a spot on the Elite 11 – didn’t come without adversity, namely a quarterback competition in high school that led to fights in the Damonte Ranch crowd and bullying in class as well as a controversial de-commitment from Notre Dame. He overcame it all.

“I’ve been here for well over 20 years now and he’s one of the best I’ve seen,” said Bishop Manogue head coach Ernie Howren, a seven-time regional champ. “I’m hard-pressed to tell you who’s better than him.”

A quick learner

When McNamara was in sixth grade, his dad brought him to Dupris, who had recently been hired as Damonte Ranch’s football coach after a six-year stint at Las Vegas' Bonanza High. McNamara played SYFL for Galena and was zoned for that school but after coaching with the Wolf Pack, Gary McNamara was set to join the baseball staff at Damonte Ranch and didn’t want his kids to attend a rival high school.

So, Gary set up a workout with Dupris to see if moving into the Damonte Ranch zone was a good fit.

“It was the summer time and he said, ‘My son wants to be a quarterback. Can you look at him?’” Dupris remembered. “I worked with him for about an hour and I told him to fix something and two days later he came back and it was fixed. That’s hard to get high-school level kids to do, much less sixth-graders. I knew he was special and he had that ‘It factor’ you don’t get in a lot of quarterbacks.”

Dupris saw McNamara as a sponge for information and willing to make whatever recommendations requested. McNamara loved Dupris' offense – “They threw the ball a lot,” he smiled – and the move was made. A year later, McNamara’s dad brought him to Southern California for a workout with Palmer, the ex-NFL quarterback and younger brother of Carson Palmer who mentored NFL and college players.

“When I took him down there in late seventh grade Jordan was not interested working with young kids,” Gary McNamara said. “When he was done after those workouts, Jordan basically told me, ‘I want to take him all the way through because I’ve never had a young guy pay attention like that.’ That was the start of us thinking, ‘Maybe this is a little more real than we thought it would be.’”

That was the first inkling McNamara might not just be a good prep quarterback. He could be something bigger. Much bigger. But Cade first had to win Damonte Ranch’s starting quarterback job. That wouldn’t be easy with incumbent Drake Vestbie earning first-team all-league honors the previous year.

McNamara made varsity as a sophomore but had to top Vestbie, a junior who had the support of his teammates. Dupris opened the quarterback competition and charted both players during the summer and in training camp. McNamara won both competitions, but the quarterbacks split time over the first three games. McNamara out-played Vestbie in those contests and became the starter in the fourth game. The Damonte Ranc fans still chanted Vestbie’s name during games.

“It totally divided the team, it created a lot of stuff in the stands,” Gary McNamara said. “There were actually fights in the stands. Parents were yelling at him, booing him. We didn’t know until this summer it spilled over into the classroom. A lot of the older kids who didn’t know who this freshman was were treating him disrespectfully and giving him a hard time on campus.”

In a three-page essay written ahead of the Elite 11 quarterback camp – the event culls the nation’s top 11 prep quarterbacks – McNamara opened up about the hurt and loneliness he felt during that period, calling it the worst moment of his career. Gary was surprised at the depth of despair his son hid.

“When I read it this summer," his father said, "I was crying because I had no idea."

McNamara considered moving his family to get away from the situation but opted against doing so, some advice from Palmer helping convince him the adversity his son faced was a positive.

“His quarterback coach is the one who calmed us down the most,” McNamara said. “He told me, ‘What Cade went through was a blessing, not a bad thing.’ I went on this rant and he said, ‘Dude, calm down. Do you think when he goes to college he’s going to have it easy? He won’t. He’ll have to battle with guys.’ We talked about the transfer thing and he said, ‘Gary, Cade is good enough they will find him anywhere he is.’ Now, we take a lot of pride in staying because a lot of people did leave the area.”

A game to remember

Entrenched at the starter entering his sophomore season, the buzz around McNamara began to grow.

Nevada, led at the time by Brian Polian, became the first school to offer McNamara a college scholarship that season. He was competing against nationally ranked players in quarterback camps in California the summer prior and realized he was as good or better than they were. He figured it was a matter of time before big schools flooded him with recruiting interest given how well he measured up against the nation’s best.

“We knew Cade was one of the best guys there,” Gary said. “It wasn’t a big fish in a little pond anymore”

And Damonte Ranch wasn’t the big fish in Northern Nevada, either. That was Reed High, led by Howren at the time, which had won five straight regional championships. But the Mustangs had McNamara, who threw for 2,042 yards and 17 touchdowns as a rail-thin freshman while Damonte Ranch went 4-7. The Mustangs lost its season opener the following season before ripping off 11 straight wins to advance to the Northern 4A title game against Reed, which promptly jumped out to a 31-7 halftime lead.

“We’ve got two quarters to come back,” Dupris told his team at intermission. “Good things will happen.”

Damonte Ranch scored 21 points in the first 6 minutes of the third quarter to pull within three, and after a Reed touchdown McNamara powered past the Raiders. McNamara finished with 397 yards and five touchdowns (three passing, two rushing) in a 49-45 victory in one of the greatest games in local prep history.

“I’ll never forget the regional championship my sophomore,” McNamara said. “You couldn’t write it any better against the five-time defending champs. To be down 24 points at halftime with a team that we did everything right during the season and during the offseason, so when it came down to the end I feel like we deserved to win it, and that’s a good feeling to have.”

McNamara’s 46 touchdown passes that season remain a state record. He threw 44 touchdowns during his junior year to notch the top two marks in Nevada history. That championship game also launched him into another recruiting orbit.

Notre Dame, which had hired Polian as its special teams coordinator, offered McNamara a scholarship after Irish head coach Brian Kelly was shown the second-half title-game comeback. Following a visit to South Bend, McNamara committed before the start of his junior season, figuring his recruitment was over.

A strong junior season ended in disappointment as McNamara piled up big stats (and more offers) while his team started the season 11-0 before losing to Reed in the regional semifinal, a turnabout upset from the previous year. McNamara was named the Gatorade state player of the year, the first from the North to win the honor since 2008. At the same time, he was wavering from his Notre Dame pledge, the fit not feeling as perfect as it did when he committed a few months earlier.

“It wasn’t a good fit,” said Gary, whose son de-committed from Notre Dame last March. “The reaction from some players was not what we expected. Some things were said, some things were not said, some things were not done."

With one of the best quarterbacks in the nation back on the market, the feeding frenzy began. Gary took his son’s phone away the first two days after the de-commitment to shield him from recruiters. The backlash from Notre Dame fans on social media was fierce. Using his time as a college assistant as a foundation, McNamara asked his son to limit his potential schools to five.

“Not many people know how much he was recruited because we kept it very quiet, but there weren’t many schools that didn’t want him,” Gary McNamara said. “We just took a different approach. When the decision comes down to Alabama, USC and Michigan after he de-committed from Notre Dame, you’re talking about four of the most historic programs in the country and they found him in Reno, Nevada.”

A Michigan man

USC was McNamara’s dream school growing up. Alabama is a title factory any player would be lucky to get a scholarship offer from. But, ultimately, it was Michigan which won him over, and it didn’t take long, with McNamara pledging to Big Blue two weeks after he de-committed from Notre Dame.

Part of the reason McNamara, who is now 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, committed to Michigan was because he figured he’d face the best internal competition in Ann Arbor (Michigan has signed high four-star recruits at quarterback in each of the previous three recruiting classes). But McNamara thrives on competition, his dad said, his weekday schedule starting by lifting weights at 6:30 a.m. and not ending until after 9 o’clock most nights.

“Last year when the season was over I told him, ‘Cade, I just need you to go be a kid for a month,’” Gary McNamara said. “He watches so much film. Him and his brothers work out on Sundays. When everybody else is taking a day off, my kids go work out again because Cade wants to clean one little thing up that he caught on film with his throwing mechanics. He’s just kind of built to be a quarterback.”

Dupris joked he only gets half the play call out of his mouth before McNamara runs with the rest because he knows the playbook so well. He’s described as a coach’s dream and a vocal, team-first leader. If there were any questions about his toughness, those were answered this season.

In an early-season game against Spanish Springs, McNamara broke the transverse process on two vertebraes. Not knowing of the injury, he played the following week and broke a rib. An X-ray showed the broken rib but the transverse process breaks weren’t revealed until a CT-scan a few days after that. Still, McNamara only missed one game, returning about a month early so he could face Manogue. Playing at less than 50 percent, per his dad, McNamara threw for 290 yards and five touchdowns in a 63-28 victory over the Miners.

“He told me after he missed the Hug game, ‘I can’t not be out there with my teammates if I can be out there,’” Gary said. “He was technically cleared by the doctors Thursday night before the Manogue game.”

McNamara has led Damonte Ranch to an undefeated season this year while setting the state record for career touchdown passes (145) and inching 95 yards shy of the state passing record. In the last three seasons, he’s led his team to a 35-3 record at a school that had just two winning campaigns in its first 11 years of existence. McNamara has put forth touchdown totals of 51 as a sophomore, 48 as a junior and 40 (and counting) as a senior while instilling belief in his team.

“He’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of player and to play with him is pretty special,” Damonte Ranch running back Derrick Knoblock said.

McNamara still works with Palmer four times a year during three-day sessions. He’s thrown with NFL quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Josh Allen and Sam Darnold, each being high first-round draft picks. McNamara's goal is to play in the NFL one day (the only local quarterbacks to do so are Glenn Carano and Rowe).

McNamara is off to Michigan in January, enrolling a semester early to get a jump-start on his college career. Before then, he’d like to win his second regional championship and capture the North’s first 4A state football title since 2008. Bishop Gorman, the private school powerhouse, has won the last nine crowns.

While his parents are proud of him for all he’s accomplished to this point in his career, his vision as a sixth-grader and his hard work paying off, they’re more proud of the person he’s become off the field.

“There’s a young kid who came to our game who got in touch with us through Facebook,” his father said. “He’s a huge Michigan fan and lives somewhere here in Reno. He’s a really young guy, like 6 or 7. He had a Michigan hat on. After the game, Cade’s kneeling with him and meeting his family and talking to him and before he goes to the locker room he's taking pictures with him. I always tell my wife that’s what makes us proud of him is the way he handles that stuff. If everybody in town could just see this, that’s what I’d like them to see. They see the football part, but he’s awesome with kids and is just an awesome kid to be around.”

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.

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